Investigations and the Right to Privacy

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Is it a breach of human rights to monitor emails?

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects employees’ right to privacy; this extends to the sanctity of private correspondence. Which makes sense of course: no reasonable employer would expect to have access to credit card statements, final demands and love letters!

However, things are less clear – much less clear – when the employee uses work email to send and receive personal emails. The nutshell answer is that employees’ private emails, even those sent from a work email account, are covered by Article 8 if:

  • the employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy
  • the emails do not impact on work related matters
  • the emails are not addressed to colleagues’ work email addresses

So, what to do? We advise that you should have a written policy that explains your approach to email and internet usage and which makes it clear that employees cannot expect emails sent using work systems to be kept private.

You could indicate that monitoring of emails will, where possible, avoid access to those whose subject line contains something like: ‘Private & Personal Email Not Relevant to Business Functions’. This will discourage the practice except in real emergencies, and make it very obvious when email systems are being abused.

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